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Scenes From The Seed Journal

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Last year around about this time, I was writing about a fiction workshop I was attending.  One of the first things I did in the workshop was to follow the leader’s advice and start  using a seed journal.  I wrote about it in one post, and have been doing it on and off since…  sometimes really on; sometimes really off.  I was flipping through it the other day and thought it was worth posting.

The idea behind a seed journal is to keep yourself on consistent alert to capture bits and fragments of conversations, street scenes, images that flash through your mind, unexpected occurrences  or whatever triggers your mind.  Write them down, of course, and revisit them as necessary to generate some writing.  I have to attest to the overall effectiveness of the idea since one of the first things I wrote down was the seed idea for story that is going to be published this coming fall; I supplemented it with something later in the seed journal.

Here are some things that have landed elsewhere in the seed journal:

Feb 25:  The birthday boy is 30, and at the surprise party are his wife, 1-year old daughter, and dozens of family and coworkers.  His college roommate comes, too–a trucker’s hat on throughout the night, a bottle of Jägermeister, and a 4-pack of Red Bull.

Mar 12:  When I bought pretzels at the gas station last night, a one-armed man named Ernie took my cash at the register.  He had one of those pincer prosthetics attached at his left elbow.

April 8:  “Somebody farted.”  It was a simple proclamation form the 8-year old boy standing behind me on the packed escalator down from the 400-level seats at Miller Park.  It was Easter Sunday, and the Brewers has fittingly laid an egg against the Cardinals.  The boy was right, and in his 8-year old mind 100% rightness meant there was no need to ignore the fact or spray it with perfume. I know he was right because I smelled the fart, but my 33-year head start on brain development and impulse control kept me from blurting out the fact of its existence, despite the absolute certainty of the fact.  Damn you, adulthood.  Damn you, maturity.  Damn you all to hell.

April 19:  Squirrel Boobs.

April 28:  Akrasia–the Greek word for acting against one’s better judgment.  Used in Ian McEwan’s short story “Hand on the Shoulder.”

May 30:  Behind me in traffic this morning, a plump woman in a white minivan popped zits on her neck while she waited for the light to change.  I saw it all in my rear view mirror.

June 22:  Pareidolia–when the brain arranges random stimuli into a significant image or sound.  Used in Ben Lerner’s short story “The Golden Vanity.”

July 2:  The new girl in class doesn’t shave her legs.  She has a pink My Little Pony lunchbox, and a thermos to match.

Jan 3:  The cashier at Walgreen’s called over the PA:  “I need more Catalina tape,” which is the name of the paper on which they print receipts.  I comment to her that I thought it was a girl’s name.  It could be a stripper’s name.

Written by seeker70

February 6, 2013 at 7:22 pm

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A Transition

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My journals are dry.  All of them:  my standard 9.5″ x 6.5″ spiral notebook for all-purpose journaling, my hardbound 8.5″ x 11″ journal for drafting poems, my micro-sized seed journal, my slightly larger bedside journal, and even the thin, floppy number I keep in my car (journal much?!).  I constantly tell my students that if writing is water, your journals are the well.  Keep your well full, and your writing life will prosper.  So how is it that my well is dry, but my writing is prospering (found out this week that I’m getting something else published, but more on that later)?

It’s complicated.  Just like every other damn thing regarding writing.

A recent snap of my journals. I use a Cannon Metaphorical camera.

First, my writing routines were disrupted last fall when Garrison Keillor was called out for not keeping his hands to himself.  Why does that matter to me?  Because Keillor ran The Writer’s Almanac, which has been a part of my writing life ever since I became intentional about my writing life.  I got a poem each day in my email, mostly blue-collar poems that promoted the philosophy that poetry should be for the everyday Joe Sixpack and Sally Housecoat.  Poems that brought people into poetry instead of pushing them away.  Poems that were easy to put ones feet down within and that showed simple but powerful flourishes of craft.  I was seeing TWA poems every day, saving some of them for transcribing later, and using them as content for my Creative Writing classes.  And then I was writing those types of poems, and even if they weren’t getting published, they were sharpening my writing skills and in some way feeding whatever else I was writing.  They were pretty damn important, Mr. Keillor, so shame on you for victimizing others and losing The Writer’s Almanac.

Without TWA, my writing imagination was not being fed consistently.  Hence I wasn’t journaling as much, and wasn’t developing ideas very consistently.  At least not on paper.  If you ever get into writing, you’ll hopefully find out very early that you never really stop writing.  You’re always developing something in your head, and a lot of what you develop in your head stays there.  Do you have to write those things down in a journal?  Well, no, you don’t.  But I habitually did because to me journaling was tangible evidence that I’m doing my due diligence as a writer.  Journaling was therapeutic.  Journaling proved my legitimacy.  Proving it to whom?  The inner critic.  I guess I always thought that if I can prove that I’m always writing, then I can call myself a writer.  But I guess that this year I’ve found that getting published also means that I can call myself a writer.

The loss of TWA is not disastrous, per se.  There are other poem-a-day services of which I have availed myself, though they don’t strike the same note with me that TWA did.  I’m still getting poetry everyday, but I’m seldom excited about it, saving even fewer of the poems, and transcribing less.  I can dig back through the TWA archives, which thankfully are available, but that requires more effort than merely opening up my email and processing whatever was in front of me.

It’s interesting to note, too, that my most recent flash fiction never saw my journal.  I started typing that sucker out the moment it hit me, and then did the standard drafting and revising along the way until I got it where I wanted it.  Skipping the journaling phase with a published piece has been so rare in my writing life that I can count the occurrences on one hand, and I’d still have fingers to spare even if that hand was short a few fingers.  But what’s liberating about working sans journal is that I can type a helluva lot faster than I can write, so I’m not losing my thoughts along the way so much.  And my handwriting is so god-awful that I don’t struggle to move words from my journal to a word-processing document.

I could also be talking here about the fundamental differences between writing in different modes and genres, and maybe that’s what I’m discovering.  Poetry should be slower and more drawn out in process because poems are such exact things.  There needs to be a lot of deliberation.  Flash fiction focuses on short, explicit episodes, so I guess they can be hashed out rapidly and then re-approached for shaping and refining afterwards.  Hell, I don’t know.  I write what comes to me, and try to write it as best I can.

I am also deliberately mindful of my writing habits, and when they change, it’s worth thinking about how and why.  It’s hard to process changes like this because I think most every writer has their methods and clings to them desperately, telling themselves this is what works for me.  I sure as hell do that, but now I wonder if my methods could work better if I used different methods.  Dunno.  But I guess I’m going to find out.

Written by seeker70

June 15, 2018 at 4:05 pm

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Identity

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I pose a question to my Creative Writing students at the end of each semester:  What is your identity as a writer?  They have the option to respond to it as they compose their final exam, which is a reflective essay on their creative writing experiences over the previous eighteen weeks.  Not many have ever chosen that avenue of exploration because I offer other options that are easier, but my writing identity is something I consider regularly.  Having had my latest story published last week at Knock Your Socks Off Flash Fiction, right now has been a good time to consider all things identity, but more on that later.

I’ve been a William Kennedy fan for well over two decades, ever since I read Ironweed.  That novel only has only a little to do with my fandom, the strongest roots of which go back to meeting Kennedy in 2011 while attending the writing institute he established with some of his earnings after being awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.  I saw the man most every day for a month, and enjoyed a reading he gave from Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes before it came to publication.  Since then, I’ve been a casual consumer of anything I could find about Kennedy—reviews, critiques, interviews.  A few years ago I read an article titled “Still Bill” that I can’t  find just now on the Googles.  Nonetheless, the writer, who was a friend of Kennedy’s, related an episode he witnessed in which someone told Kennedy about a real-life young politician who asked where one gets the money to run a political party once one takes it over.  This was in some way related to the infamous Albany Democratic machine.  According to the writer, Kennedy busted out a little notebook and wrote down the episode, and then stashed the notebook in a box.  Some time later, the episode appeared in Kennedy’s 2002 city hall political novel Roscoe, with the quote and context pretty much verbatim.

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William Kennedy, about whom Jack Nicholson said, “That man can drink.”

I’ve always remembered this because I love to see a professional writer still adhering to the basic steps of writing and turning them into great reward, especially when I have direct experience with that professional writer.  To me, that episode stands as a great endorsement to keep your feet on the ground as a writer and to keep practicing the scales, as a concert pianist might say.  The idea of that simple journal notation is something I’ve talked about before herein, and without my adherence to it, I couldn’t have written “Last Time.”  The story started in part with a wiseass comment I made to my girlfriend last fall about toilet paper usage.  The idea of a person asking someone to bring their own toilet paper when they visited struck me as hilariously absurd.  What kind of person would ask someone else to do that?  I grabbed my bedside seed journal and took a few quick notes on the notion, and those notes sat there for nine months.  It wasn’t until I mistakenly thought I saw hairs stuck in my copy of The Paris Review that the story dropped in my lap (it wasn’t hairs, by the way…  it was pine needles in a picture TPR published).  This will make some sense if you check out “Last Time.”  I paired some thoughts on pine needles with the previous irreverence about toilet paper, and the story fell out of my head onto the paper.

I’ve also remarked to several friends that I broke an important writing rule with “Last Time.”  Here’s the thing:  Nobody looked at the story before I sent it off.  One dude looked at it for shits and grins, but I didn’t ask for any feedback.  So there were no editorial comments from anybody.  No feedback.  No edits.  I wrote a few drafts, felt good about it, and shotgunned it to several different publications.  The editor from last one I queried replied the next morning:  “Got a kick out of ‘Last Time,’ which is a great way to begin my day.”  From start to finish, the whole thing took about a week.  I was stunned, and quite pleased with myself for finding a home for the story while working on instinct 95% of the way.  I mentioned in a previous blog that, like most stories, there came a breakthrough moment.  It wasn’t all about juxtaposing pine needles and toilet paper; when it was at first, I figured the story would just be practice.  But my prior experiences with publishing flash fiction told me that a compelling final image would help take the story where I wanted it to go, and that image came to me when I was doing yoga a few days after writing the initial draft.

So I said “prior experience publishing flash fiction.”  Yeah.  I’ve said that to myself a lot the last few weeks.  Enough to think that flash fiction is where I am as a writer.  I started that way as a fiction writer seven years ago in Imitation Fruit, and over the last two years my three publishing experiences have all been flash-related.  Why is that?  Poetry, methinks.  I write nothing more than poetry these days (and have a damn fine poetry workshop member, by the way), and I think the greatest Bennett-fit has been how practicing it has informed my other writing to the point where I can flesh out singular episodes, or make apparent the underlying ideas behind unusual and absurd circumstances, while trying to work on a subconscious level with the reader.  You know what writing so much poetry is not doing, though?  Making me a poet.  I can’t get that shit published to save my life.  But that’s okay.  I was heartened by what Percival Everett said in a recent interview:  “I write poetry to prove I can’t write poems.”  Does my experience tell me that I should focus less on verse and more on prose?  Hell no.  It’s the verse that got me here, and I’m happy with where I am.  I’ve got to keep practicing the scales, just like a concert pianist.  What about writing a novel?  Don’t I want to be a novelist?  Fuck that shit.  But I used to say the same thing about poetry.

 

 

Written by seeker70

August 8, 2017 at 1:46 pm

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All Kinds of Crazy Shit–Including Yoga

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A lot of my writing life is spent waiting for something to happen.  Perhaps it only seems that way, but it feels like time drags by when I’m not writing something.  When the situation reaches terminal velocity, I find things to do other than write.  Like play a shitton of NES Classic.  Or watch Netflix.  Or god forbid, I actually clean the house.  The absence of any  substantive writing happening is almost palpable, even though I know it’s all in my head.  The thing is that writing is one of my barometers.  Along with teaching and running, writing is one of those things that indicates how life is really going.  I frequently tell my students that those three barometers are quite important to me, and I work consistently to assure that each one is tuned and operational.  When one isn’t, the other two can make up for that.  So if I’m not writing well, then having a good day in the classroom or having a good run at the forest preserve can help bring the writing back in line.  I can’t count how many  times in the last fifteen years that a good morning 5K breaking through with a poem or story has boosted my teaching.  It’s only a three-pronged system, but it’s complicated and goes through all kinds of mutations and permutations even day-to-day sometimes, but I know it’s my system and I know I have the power to push all three factors in the direction I need to.

So what to do in the summer when I’m not teaching, I feel like crap when I run, and I’m not writing anything that I’m excited about?  It’s a question I’ve been facing down since school got out a month ago.  I rely so heavily on the three barometers, but what do I do when they’re out of whack or essentially unreachable at some points?  Gut it out, I guess, and wait for something to break through.  I wrote last week about finally turning a corner last Tuesday in my quest for thirty 5Ks, and I think that may have been what did it to get me out of my funk.  On Wednesday, I had a good day of writing on my writing date—I forced myself to stay seated, even when I was plenty ready to leave, and crap out the first draft of a flash fiction that came to me by way of the seed journal—and then on Thursday I returned to tutoring for the first time this summer and had a good session with my student in the adult literacy program where I volunteer.  Before I knew it, the ice was cracking and thawing, and I almost felt back to my regular self.

Here’s the thing, though:  I wasn’t really trying to do any of those things.  All three are part of my summer routine.  They are things I pretty much do instinctively.  Friday morning came around, and I was feeling better about life.  I got to thinking about the crappy flash fiction as I was driving to yoga class.  What I could possibly do with the story?  Most likely, it would just be good practice and nothing would probably come from it.  But then I struck a pose about a half hour later and it was like a bell rang in my  head.  I realized my story needed a solid closing image to leave the reader thinking.  It even came to me what the image should be.

Now I’m starting to think that I have the whole “three barometers” thing wrong.  I’m starting to think that it’s not teaching, running, and writing that do it for me.  I’m thinking that it’s yoga, and I’m just now realizing after four years how yoga feeds all three of my barometers.

This is not an easy thought for me because I don’t like yoga.  I only do it so I don’t keep getting tendinitis from running.  And so I can keep my shoulders fit and operational.  And so I can have a healthy stretch and maintain some decent degree of flexibility.  And to calm down sometimes.  And to be mindful of my body.  And to feel solid physical balance.  In fact, I don’t like yoga so much that I wrote a poem about how much I don’t like it.  Plus, I don’t like the idea of my life hinging on one factor because it’s not one thing that goes right that makes everything else go right.  Feeling content with life comes down to keeping the positive things happening and keeping a healthy balance among all things positive, negative, joyous, or stressful (shut up, I know:  “yoga helps you maintain your balance” said every yoga instructor ever).

Here’s also why it’s not all about the yoga:  If I hadn’t read Adam O’Fallon Price’s “A Natural Man” in The Paris Review Thursday evening last week, the breakthrough with my story would never have happened at yoga Friday morning.  Have I mentioned that you constantly read stuff when you’re a writer because that’s what writers do?  So even when they’re not writing, writers are reading and thinking on what they read and how what they read is going to inform what they are writing or what they will write.  And I happened to be at yoga when I was thinking of the stunning final image in Price’s story, which is a good thing because yoga is renowned for opening one’s mind and encouraging one to explore and accept thoughts and ideas, coincidentally while a body is working through sun salutations and downward dogs and chaturanga dandasanas.  So it’s a combination of things that balance my life, and I happened to hit the right combination at the right time because I’m too stubborn to give up on things when I get frustrated.  Spin the roulette wheel enough times and every number comes up, right?  That’s kinda what I was doing by waiting the situation out.

So I guess if nothing else I’ve discovered that my three barometers are intact, functioning, and reliable, and yoga can help me get through and maintain if my barometers are faulty.  I’m happy to have that wisdom just now since I turn 47 today.  No answer yet as to how I have gotten this old this fast.  I’m closing in on my quest for thirty 5Ks (one left!), and feel physically as well as I can expect to feel for my age, activity level, and eating and drinking habits.  Hell, I can walk upright!  That’s something!  And finally, I found out just yesterday that the crappy piece of flash fiction that I found a good closing image for is going to be published.  More on that in the next few weeks.  I subtitled my last blog post “Sometimes You Just Gotta Believe,” and I guess that applies as much to this post as it did to the last one.

Written by seeker70

July 1, 2017 at 6:18 am

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My Latest Story…

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First, the fact that I can even start a blog with this title makes me very happy.  It shows that I’m making some nice progress with my writing–in fact, I am, and I would love to tell you all about it.

I’ve been sitting on this news for about a year, ever since the faculty advisor of Mount Hope literary magazine first contacted me to ask me if my story “Public Education” was still available for publication.  Hell yes it was!  We worked on a few tweaks over the course of last winter and here this fall, and now the story is up online.  You can read it here:  Mount Hope.  I haven’t yet received my print copies, and can’t wait until I do.  The magazine looks pretty damn sharp, and I’m proud to have my writing in it.

This story started, as a good deal of writing does, with an agitation.  In particular, I was on the short end of my patience with teachers in a district with which I’m familiar being addressed about the failure rates in certain classes by people who might as well have had they’re hands firmly planted over their ears as they repeated ad infinitum, “What?  Say it again?  Attendance?  Discipline problems?  Chronic failures?  Deadbeat parents?  WHAT?  All I’m curious about is why so many students are failing–not all that other stuff… .”

I was in the Fictive Dream writing workshop at the time, so for eight weeks I was consistently cranking my writing gears.  I was also trying out some brand new practices like the seed journal, which I’ve written about twice herein.  I caught a stray bit of conversation coming into school one day, and that triggered the whole story–I stumbled upon the perfect vehicle for my unhappiness.  That unhappiness fueled me throughout the writing process.  I worked diligently for a few months, seasoned the story with a another episode from the seed journal that I picked up around campus, and ended up with something I was pretty happy with.  It’s also the most politically and socially charged piece of fiction I’ve written.  Perhaps the most important thing I learned was how fiction writers make use of certain tools in the writer’s toolbox to create political and social commentary.

So the story is out there, and I’m pretty happy.  I have some feelers out elsewhere with this same story, and will gladly tell you if it’s going to live more lives in other publications.

As for those excerpts from the seed journal, these are the ones that helped make the story:

Feb 21, 2012:  I walk into school and immediately hear an announcement:  “Will _________ Zickovich please report to the dean’s office?”  The announcement repeats her name:  _________ Zickovich.  Somewhere behind me, without missing a beat, a student deadpans a la Chapelle’s Show:  Is __________ gonna hafta chokabitch?

March 9, 2012:  Carmen’s mother has a brain tumor.  Each time she goes to Honduras for treatment, Carmen has to fill in for her at her job as a janitor, or else her mother will lose that position.

 

Written by seeker70

October 30, 2013 at 9:04 pm

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Your First Constraint (scenes from the conference)

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Part of the intent of attending the NorUSumWriCon last weekend was to bolster some areas of my teaching of creative writing.  As such, I took some workshops that by preview alone offered content that I was already familiar with, but that was okay because it helps to get content from a different set of eyes, especially some higher up on the writer food chain than a high school Creative Writing teacher and part-time writer.  Almost to a person, the people who lead these workshops are college professor types who have a book or two under their belts.  That was exactly the case with Jarrett Neal, who lead a workshop on Point of View.

Point of View left. So I guess it isn’t there anymore.

How you answer the question of who is telling your story is going to be the first and biggest constraint you put on your story, and Neal did a great job of exploring the consequences, both positive and negative, of each POV.  One good point he made was that world-building narratives need to be in 3rd person.  I had thought that for some time, but had never had the wherewithal or demands to verbalize it as such.  It makes sense:  A world new to the reader needs to been seen in its entirety so all the details are known and so the reader can fully experience that world.  The most immediate example I can think of was 1984.  The dystopian future of Oceania is only effective to the degree it is because it comes from an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator.  We can’t experience that world the same way if it’s only Winston relating events and thoughts.  We’d be lost because Winston certainly wouldn’t tell us the dirty details that he already knows as part of his everyday life (who would really do something like that?), and we’d also only get what Winston saw in his mundane daily existence.  This world-building idea is ambitious, though; too much so for the students who usually take my Creative Writing class.  As such, I ban world-building stories because it really is too much for a young writer to handle.  No joke—I literally have a “do not write” list I give students!

Something else we did was play around with POV a little bit.  I was tasked with starting a third-person omniscient passage based on this prompt:  “My wife and kids are gone for a week.”  The issue right off was that the prompt was voiced in first-person.  So how to convey the idea of an absent spouse and offspring without saying it directly?  And then there was the problem of having another character in the passage, too, so it wouldn’t be confused with third-person limited.  And speaking of constraints!  Neal said 100 words was all we had to work with.  I managed to get what follows down in my journal.

That was fast.  Unexpectedly.  It had been too long, which was why.  But now that he had worn out Tube8 (and himself), Rick was left wondering how he was going to spend the remaining 167 1/2 hours.

On the other side of the city, Kathleen was gunning the engine to outrun the semis that would slow her entrance to the freeway.  Once she merged, she thumbed the cruise control buttons on the steering wheel.  Eighty-six wasn’t too fast, was it?  Even with three kids?  But the sooner they were in Reno, the more time they had to do…  nothing.  By her estimate, they’d have 164 hours.

But that wasn’t it.  Once I had a workable passage, I had to rewrite it in first-person POV.  This is something I encourage my students to experiment with, but I don’t mandate it.  After experiencing the benefits of this exercise, I think I am going to demand it in the future.  The benefits of switching POV are things I’ve known as a writer for some time, but still manage to forget or neglect when I’m writing.  It was good to be reminded to play around with the writing every now and then and see what happens.  I like the third-person POV better because I got in some free-indirect discourse, but the first-person POV wasn’t too bad, either:

Holy shit that was fast.  But it has been a while.  Because the girls are old enough now to know about browser histories and Kathleen’s lecture on exploitation isn’t worth sitting through.  It doesn’t mean anything anyhow.  Just casual browsing.  I thought I’d get more time in, but the temptation was too great.  I still have 167 1/2 hours, which means I can likely watch more.  But not before I Google how to discreetly and permanently delete browser histories.  Kathleen is probably hitting the freeway by now, and no doubt risking a speeding ticket to get the hell away from here as fast as possible.  You go, girl.

So what to do with all this?  Nuttin’, honey.  Or maybe something.  Who knows?  The seed for a story is there.  It’s up to me to do something with it if or when I feel like it, though the practice is far more important than the product.

Written by seeker70

August 23, 2017 at 10:35 pm

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Don’t Mind the Rest, pt.2

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…continued from yesterday…

It had been five weeks since Aunt Joan died.  Life looked a heckuva lot different than it had before her passing, and Uncle Slim’s passing last year.  This is what Slim meant when he had told him that things rarely work the way you plan them, but you have to deal with them anyways.  Tim understood now what it meant to be on his own.  Like it or not, he was his own man, beholden to nothing and no one.  There was no saying that he had to get on that train, or see Esther before he did, or even sell the farm to Mr. Giles.  He could have held his ground and kept that land like a postage stamp in the corner of Giles’ tracts until Kingdom come.

Inheriting the farm, though, meant recognizing it was going to collapse sooner rather than later, which Mr. Giles knew but waited to remind Timmy until a week after Aunt Joan had gone to the Hereafter.  Giles knocked late Sunday afternoon and requested a conversation.  He was dressed in a dingy white shirt and faded overalls, which passed for formal enough for a late Sunday talk with a neighbor.  His face was ruddy and sun-beaten.  He had wet his hair and combed it back.  Karl the banker stood behind him and peeked over his shoulder as Giles blocked the width of the doorway.

Mr. Giles sat at the kitchen table with his elbows on his thighs.  His enormous gut sagged between his knees.  He laid his notebook open on the table in front of him and poked with a crooked index finger at each point he had written down when he read it aloud:  “Your farm is too big for one man to handle.  It’s also too small to generate money to hire help.  You and Slim could hardly handle it as he was getting on in years.  It’s hard, hard work, and it put Joan…”  Mr. Giles stopped and looked at Tim.  When he seemed confident that he had his whole attention, he told him, “Timmy, you’re young, and as strong as any man in these parts.  But you’re not always going to be like that.  You think about the last year.  You’ve been lucky to get the crops in and keep things up.  Your whole life has been on these acres.  This place is going to wear you down.  You’ll be old before your time.”

Tim sipped his coffee and nodded.  His hand slipped into his pocket and felt for the piece of folded pink stationery he had been holding onto for the past week.  His fingers rested on it as he thought about Mr. Giles’ words.  They were the naked and unperfumed truth, and weren’t unlike thoughts Tim had in the last year but had pushed out of his mind.  Joan had seemed to want to broach the topic since Slim’s death, but admittedly couldn’t say the words for fear they’d become the truth.  Instead, they carried on their duties both for each other and out of respect to Slim’s legacy.  Things remained that way up until ten days prior when the rooster didn’t wake Joan and Tim found her cold in her bed.

Mr. Giles continued, “The tractor needs overhauled.  Anybody who’s heard it can tell you that.  And that truck isn’t going to last.  This is to say nothing of the regular repairs to this house.”  His eyes left Tim and darted around the walls and ceiling, surveying who knew what future repairs.  He reached into the breast pocket of the dingy white shirt he wore beneath his overalls and pulled out a thick stack of bills.  He set it on the table and pushed it to the middle.  “This will be my only offer.”

He referred back to the list, again with the crooked finger.  “It beats a broken back.  Empty pockets.  The bank at the door.  No place to go.  This way, you got cash in your hand and you can do what you wish.  What kind of man wouldn’t take that?”

Giles looked to Karl, who looked to Tim and spoke softly. “He’s right, Timmy.”  Karl managed a weak smile.  He fidgeted with his string tie.  “I know this isn’t a good way for things to end, but think of it like a beginning.  You can make yourself a whole new future.  It’s the practical thing to do.  I think Slim and Joan would have told you the same.”

Tim hitched his thumbs into the bib straps of his overalls.  Slim had told him he could trust Karl, and don’t be fooled if it seems he’s going against you.  Karl knows the angles, and you gotta believe that he has things figured so they can work for you.  He’s an honest man.  He helped keep the family on the farm in some of the lean years.

Karl’s eyes darted to Mr. Giles, and then rested back on Tim.  “Timmy, you ought to know that I talked to Slim a couple of times about the best way to provide for you and Joan when the unthinkable happened.  He knew it was going to.  A man carries a wound like that, he knows it’s going to take him eventually.  Thank God he hung on like he did.  He told me that when the time comes, you’d know the right thing to do.  I think this is what he meant.”

Giles closed the notebook and stood up from the table.  He pushed his sleeves up his forearms, and then stuffed the notebook into a back pocket.  He turned to face Tim, pointing his gut directly at him.  He produced a bandana and wiped perspiration from his forehead.  Finally, he spoke.  “Son, I’m going to leave here in one flat minute.  You will never again see me on this property so long as I don’t own it.”

Tim rose and looked directly into Giles’ eyes, surprising even himself at how tall he was.  He was one of the few men in the county who could stand so tall as to look directly in Giles’ eyes.  It occurred to him that with Giles’ bloated body next to his tall, slender self, they looked like the number ten debating itself.  He stifled the thought.  He spoke.  “Mr. Giles, I’ll take your money.  But I have conditions.”

“Conditions?”  Giles snorted.  He looked to Karl.  “Do you believe this?  He might as well be Slim’s own true blood.”

Tim stood still, his thumbs still hooked in his bib straps. “If you have even a shred of respect for Slim and Joan and all they did, you’ll listen.”

Giles gave him a stern look up and down.  When his sagging jowls relaxed, Tim knew for the first time that Giles, or anybody for that matter, was measuring him as a full man.  Giles stuffed his handkerchief into a pocket and crossed his arms over his chest.  “Go ahead.”

It took less than a minute for them to settle that Tim would accept the reasonable compensation for his inheritance.  The money also bought him one month to remain on the farm and the promise of silence about the deal so he could tend to his affairs without being bothered.  They shook on the agreement, the power in the grip of Mr. Giles’ clammy hand matched by the young hardness of Tim’s.

Tim studied the beaming face across from him.  The stoutness of it and the shallow widow’s peak high on the forehead didn’t match at all with Esther’s slender cheeks and small chin.  There didn’t seem to be an identifiable through line from Mr. Giles to his brother Pa Giles to his niece Esther.  All Esther had must have come from her mother’s side.  She was lucky not to be shaded so directly to her father, whose face Tim had last seen a year ago.  At that time, it was as red as Indian corn.  Beads of sweat blotched the bulbous nose, and his mouth spewed chaw as he yelled, “My daughter ain’t marryin’ no goddamn dirt farmer!”

He had barged into the moment when Tim and Esther stood in his back yard and kissed for the first time, hands-in-hands, facing each other, staring into the other’s eyes.  It was almost ten o’clock.  He came stumbling out the house with a double-barrel Winchester broken open in the crook of one arm and pointing menacingly at Tim with the index finger of his free hand.  You’d think that nobody had seen young people in love.  What did they think was going to happen at a dance?

Everything happened so fast that evening, like a dirt devil sprung up in a barren field before a storm.  He had never been to a dance and there he was at his very first, the graduation dance.  She had approached him, the quiet girl from the back of the room in literature class.  Maybe she had smiled at him once or said hello.

She was smiling and biting her lower lip.  She said, “I’d like to dance, Tim.”  She grasped his hand and took him onto the dance floor.  How could feet that were steady and reliable in the fields and barn be so clumsy on the hard wood of the gymnasium floor?  An hour later and he felt what must have been intoxication from the floral scent of her perfume and the softness of her lightly starched cotton dress.

He offered to walk her home to buy more minutes of her company.  Their silhouettes moved between houses whose front rooms glowed by candle light or whose front porches were lit by lanterns.  The soft lights radiated off Esther’s skin.  Had his feet even touched the ground between the school and the four blocks to her house?

The kiss had been a desperate ploy because he could not find the words to express the unexpected feelings.  He was stuck in the wake of unexpected romance even after Pa Giles chased from the back yard.  He was sure he wanted to live with his lips pressed to hers.

Slim and Joan picked him up in front of the school ten minutes later.  By the time the truck rattled and lurched back up the driveway on the farm, he had found the words and laid the whole story out to them. The cab of the truck glowed in a strange light that must have come from the grins on the faces of his aunt and uncle.  Slim switched the engine off, and the three of them sat in silence.  Finally, Joan asked, “He said ‘goddamn dirt farmer?’  That’s just not right.  He doesn’t feel that way about his own brother, does he?  I’m tempted to march right to their house the next time we’re in town and ask him.”

Slim patted her thigh.  “It’s been an eventful night, but my hip is certainly screaming.  Let’s sleep on things and see what the morning brings.”

They walked to the end of the driveway at first light.  Slim more leaned on Tim than walked with him.  “Pa Giles gets some funny notions,” he said as they ran a chain around the end post of the fence and through the frame of the gate.  “Same as Mr. Giles sometimes.  It don’t help that their cousin is the sheriff.”

They clicked a padlock on the ends of the chain.  Tim backed away and admired the effectiveness of their simple task.  He couldn’t stifle a grimace.

“Enjoy these days, son,” Slim told him.  He, too, was smiling again.  The grin was so wide across his face that it was falling off the edges.  “You ain’t done nothing wrong, and no sheriff is gonna make a deal about it.”

Tim ran his hand through his hair and shook his head.  “Thanks, Uncle Slim.”

“You’re welcome.  Don’t ever let no man intimidate you, Timmy.  Always deal fair with ‘em, but don’t back down when you know you’re right.  That’ll take care of most of your problems.”

They walked back to the house together, Slim with his arm around Tim.  He was still plenty strong enough to walk with a little help.

They sat on the front porch and waited for breakfast.  Aunt Joan brought out scrambled eggs with ham, biscuits with apple butter, hash browns, and whole milk.  The thick scent of coffee hung on the porch even after they had finished the meal and were sitting quietly, surveying the front lawn and the barn and letting the day’s chores wait for a bit longer.  It was quiet for a long time, until Aunt Joan spoke.  “You know you’re right for her.  She knows it, too.  Don’t mind the rest.”  She repeated the last part in a cadence.  “Don’t mind the rest.”  She paused, and then said again, “Don’t mind the rest.”

Slim nodded and pointed toward the road at an angle far to the left, where the sheriff’s truck was rolling towards the driveway.  Dust billowed in its wake.  Once he reached the intersection, the sheriff parked the truck and got out.  He walked to the gate and leaned his forearms on it.  He waved and yelled out, “Can you come out to the gate, Slim?  We need to talk.  Bring the boy.”

What followed was the longest walk Tim ever remembered taking to the road.  Sure Slim’s hip was bothering him, but it felt more like he was taking a walk to nowhere in particular and enjoying the scenery along the way.  He paced himself slow and easy, like the front porch swing of an evening when he’d sit there with Joan.  Was Slim chuckling as they walked?

The sheriff sighed heavily when they finally stood before him.  He tipped his hat and propped his boot on a gate rail.  “Pa Giles said Tim was disturbing his property last night after the dance.  Said he took liberties with his daughter.  This true?”

Slim unhooked his arm from around Tim’s shoulder and stood on his own.  “The way I heard it was that Tim here walked Esther home.  Looks like the two of them favor each other.  Did Pa Giles tell you the part about bringing his double-barrel into the yard and making threats?”

The sheriff took his hat off and wiped his arm across his forehead.  He grasped his Sam Browne belt on both sides of his hips, and gave Slim a long look.

Slim continued, “When a man tips a bottle and carries on like that, that’s your disturbance.”  He didn’t move, only stood there next to Tim and returned the sheriff’s look.

The sheriff stared into Slim’s eyes.  Finding no weaknesses after what felt like a full minute, he spoke.  “Pa Giles says for Tim to keep off his property and away from his daughter.  Let’s make this the last we speak of it.”

He turned to walk back to his truck, but Slim froze him in his tracks.  “We respect the limits of the law, sheriff.  We expect you to do the same.”  The sheriff half-turned as if to reply, but changed his mind.  He climbed in his truck and went back the way he came, dust again billowing behind him.

The walk back to the porch was significantly shorter than the walk to the road, and it seemed like Slim’s hip felt so good that it was like it had never bothered him in the first place.  He never said a word about it again.  Two weeks later, Tim found him slumped on the ground by the chicken coop.  He lay atop of bucketful of seed that had spilled when he collapsed.  The leg that extended from his bad hip was curled beneath him in what looked like one final attempt to protect his vulnerability.

Tim would see Esther over the course of the next year if by chance he passed on his way to the hardware store or the post office or wherever an errand might take him.  If he happened to pass the Giles’ house he might see her staring out the front window, looking for something.  Maybe she was sitting on the front porch stroking the cat on her lap.  She’d wave and manage enough of a smile to warm him inside.  They’d see each other at Sunday services, and if they were situated just right they could sneak a sideways glance or a smile.  There was always the hope they could talk in the courtyard after service as the congregation filed out and exchanged pleasantries, but without fail Pa Giles would clutch Esther’s elbow and walk her home without a backward glance.

She hadn’t been at the funerals.  Not even death and the showing of one’s respects trumped the importance of keeping the girl away from the dirt farmer.  She had been able to get him a note, though, which Mrs. Gunderson gave to him at the luncheon the church had put together after Joan’s funeral.

Esther had used a piece of pink stationery and had folded it in thirds with clean, exact creases.  She wrote with purple ink in neat, precise cursive that could have been a model for a penmanship primer:

Dearest Timmy:  I’m sorry about your Aunt Joan, and even sorrier I can’t be there.  My parents forbade me, the same as they did with your Uncle Slim’s funeral.  They can’t forbid my thoughts, though they would try if they knew how often you are in them.  Love, Esther

Tim folded the note in half across the width of the tri-fold and kept it in his pocket.  He had found himself holding it at times over the past month or running his hand in his pocket to assure it was still on his person.  He finally laid it between the pages of the leather-bound journal to keep it safe from the rigors of the move.

continued…

Written by seeker70

February 13, 2015 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Valentine’s Day / Don’t Mind the Rest pt.1

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Like most writers, I wax poetic about love at times.  I try not to for the most part since it’s soooo overdone, and I ban my students from writing about it for most of the semester in Creative Writing, but it still crops up.  Such is the case here.  I started this story four years ago in the middle of a bike ride.  I was off the saddle for a few minutes, had a tiny journal with me, and started to write about someone walking across the cornfield that ran right next to where I was resting.  It didn’t start as a love story, but became one after I figured out where Timmy was going, and why.  I put the story aside for quite some, but decided last year that I liked it enough to keep at it.  Pretty soon it became practice in plotting a piece of fiction, so I kept at it for practice sake.  I sent it to an anthology about “love on the road,” (take that as you will), but they politely declined.  I know why it didn’t get published, which is why I haven’t sent it out anymore, but it’s good for Valentine’s Day.  ~ Jeff

Don’t Mind the Rest

            The rust-pocked hinges on the barn door creaked as Tim opened it.  Light from his lantern cut into the black spaces inside, illuminating them at an hour so unusual that a few chickens clucked nervously and at least one pig snorted in alarm.  “It’s only me!” Tim called from behind the light.  “Good morning!” He circled around to the chicken coop and past the pig pen.  He worked his way outside to the fenced-in yard behind the barn to show himself to any creatures who might have been sleeping in the cool summer air but who now might be alarmed.  Once he felt calm settle back into the barn, he set to his chores.

He sat the lantern down on a block of wood, and then walked through the awkward shadows to drag a bag of chicken feed from the tack room to the coop.  He scattered the mixture of wheat, barley, and corn in generous portions, clicking all the while to the chickens to bring their awareness to the food.  When they had more than enough kernels to peck at, he primed the pump and filled a pair of buckets with water.  He took it to the pig pen and refreshed their supply, and then dumped more slop into their trough.  The sow watched him through the corner of her eye as she lay on her side with her snoring piglets snuggled to her belly.  Tim bent down to pat her side and scratch her snout.  “Alright, momma.  Be a good pig.  Goodbye now.”  He scratched her for another minute while she quietly grunted.

He refilled one of the buckets with water and was about to leave the barn when an idea came to him.  He went back to the tack room, grabbed a fragment of steel fence post, and dug the jagged tip beneath one of the horseshoes nailed to the wall.  He pressed against the post, and the rusted nail yielded with a sharp squeak.  He grabbed the horseshoe and yanked it.  The nail popped out of the wall and fell on the dirt floor.  He slipped the horseshoe into his back pocket, grabbed the bucket and lantern, and returned to the house.

He spent the next hour moving around the kitchen and dining area in the dim light of the lantern as he prepared to leave for Iowa City.  His first task was to iron the dark jeans and plaid cowboy shirt he would wear.  He bathed and shaved himself with the water from the well, combed his hair, trimmed his fingernails, and splashed on the final drops of Uncle Slim’s cologne.  Finally, he packed the last items that would fit into Slim’s Army duffle, including the horseshoe and an empty Mason jar.

He had packed the duffle tight.  It was anchored by a few other pairs of pants and shirts, his denim jacket, and his union suit.  On top of all that was a bible, a family scrapbook, several journals, a set of spoons in a velvet pouch, and a folded American flag.  At the very top was a small cedar box containing Slim’s service medals and ribbons and an envelope bulging with cash.  Every other practical item in the house and barn had ended up at the Methodist church late yesterday afternoon.  Tim had been able to coax the truck into town one final time and drop off a flatbed and trailer full of things without attracting attention from anybody but Pastor and Mrs. Vollmers.

Tim started to draw the string to cinch the top of the duffle, but stopped.  He reached inside and dug around blindly until he grasped a leather-bound journal.  He pulled it out and removed a folded piece of pink stationery he had tucked between the pages for safe keeping.  He held the stationery between two fingers as he thumbed through the pages, finally settling on his mother’s inscription inside the front cover.  He read it for the hundredth time:

Timothy:  These poems are for you, each brought about in some way by the joy that has been raising you.  When you hold this book, all of my greatest creations will be contained in the space you occupy.  I’m leaving you in the only hands left, and I’m leaving these in the best hands I can imagine—yours!  Love, Mom

He flipped through the other pages of crisp parchment.  All save the last had been marked with black ink in his mother’s compact, high-looping script.  That final page was now marked by a printed stanza in blue ink that he had written especially for Esther:

The Seed, Once Planted

to suckle morning’s dew
pushes its way through
this heartland soil.
How well it knows the toil–
the same as you and me
dreaming to become we.

He had said all he could in the best manner he knew, and if it was the last thing he ever gave Esther, that would be just fine.  There was nothing more he could think to do with the poem, and certainly no more time if he thought of anything else.

He returned the pink stationery to the middle of the journal, confident that it would remain safely pressed there until he had need for it.  He placed the journal back in the duffle, drew the string at the top, and sat the duffle next to the door.  He made one final pass around the house.  He swung the lantern in each tiny, barren room to assure that he had closed all the windows and hadn’t overlooked any stray items.  Once he was certain, he returned to the duffle and hoisted it on his shoulder.  He extinguished the lantern, stepped through the front door, and pulled it closed for the last time.

He set off towards the back of the property and felt more than saw the incline of the land as he walked in the dark.  It took him ten minutes to reach the top of the slope.  Once he reached it, he placed the duffle on the ground between the rows, and fished out the Mason jar.  He took a knee and scooped a quart of soil into the jar, and then screwed the lid back on.  Once it was tight, he put the jar back in the bag.

Still kneeling, he looked to the horizon.  The sun was an hour away, which meant he had an hour and a half before the train to Iowa City arrived.  A few more steps and he’d be in Giles’ fields, which he’d cross, then the Gunderson’s, and then he’d break the city limits and be at the train station.  He’d buy his ticket and be on his way twenty minutes later.  The thought of what he had to do in those final twenty minutes in town was enough to make his heart thump.

He stood, slung the duffle onto his shoulder, and moved his gaze to the farm sleeping below him.  There was no turning back now, and nothing to turn back to.  He had to move on.

continued…

Written by seeker70

February 12, 2015 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Hospital Drive Doesn’t Want Me (more rejected writing)

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I saw a classified ad in Poets & Writers recently.  The literary publication Hospital Drive was looking for writing “that examines themes of health, illness, and healing.”  Whenever I comb through the P&W classifieds, I run my catalog of writing in my head to see if I have something I could send to any particular publication.  Sometimes a publication wants something highly specialized–sometimes that works out because sometimes you write something that is so specialized that there might not be any practical way to get it published other than by somebody wanting something out of the norm.  Regardless, you didn’t write whatever you wrote because you wanted to get published.  You wrote it because if you didn’t you weren’t going to be right.

When I saw what Hospital Drive wanted, I thought of a poem I wrote several years ago that has been doing nothing but sitting on my hard drive, and on my flash drive, and on my external hard drive (because you backup your writing obsessively).  So I dug this out, took a look at it, remembered how much I liked it, and fired it off:

Still

The moth that flapped and fluttered in

the spider’s web above me as

I lie atop the exam table

is still.  I am prostrate, breathing

and watching him, staring into

the hypnotizing fluorescent

white lights where he is stuck, alone

except for me below.  We wait.

We are the prisoners of fate.

I was surprised to hear back from Hospital Drive asking me if the poem was still available because they wished to send it on to their next set of readers.  I was pretty happy that I made it past first cuts–  I liked the poem, but was never really sure if it offered much to anybody but me.  If I remember correctly, it has been rejected by other publications.  Earlier this week, Hospital Drive joined the ranks of the rejectors.

The seed for the poem came while I was recovering from an Achilles injury I suffered on Thanksgiving Day, 2007.  I just now dug through some old journals and found the above draft in November, 2008.  I dug further and found my first scratchings on May 13, 2008.  I remember starting it and getting frustrated because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, and I was struggling with the iambic tetrameter.  I obviously picked it up a few months later and was able to craft something.

Odd, this one…  my friend Barbara and I have talked several times about “autobiographical poetry,” which is the term we’ve given to our poems taken from our real lives.  There is no intentional use of symbolism, but readers can find symbols and assign meanings because they might not know that the poem is “true.”  Here, the spider’s web and “hypnotizing flourescent white lights” are merely pieces of the setting, but they act as strong symbols when you read the poem from the outside.  That’s one thing I liked about it as I was drafting, and it’s something that has become more common in my poetry as I’ve continued to write over the last four years.

Nonetheless, Hospital Drive doesn’t want me.  Guess I’ll keep writing and see what happens.

Written by seeker70

September 14, 2012 at 9:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Digging Up Bones, pt. 4

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We’re plugging along in The Fictive Dream workshop.  Tomorrow will be our fourth week, and that will mark the halfway point.  I’ve been enjoying things enough to keep working at a brisk clip, and that enjoyment is important in that there is no grade or tuition payments motivating me to get the most bang for my buck.  The only downside is that I’m remembering how demanding grad school is, and this isn’t even grad school.  While I’m sure what we are doing would pass muster in some creative writing programs, it’s still only about 50% of what we did in the official Northwestern workshops.  That workload is plenty, and that’s fine–remember that this is free and we’re all volunteers.  If too much is demanded of us, some would just walk away.

I’ve been slowly plugging away at “Anthropology.”  I got a few hours of work in on it last Friday, mostly focusing on the dialogue I had to create.  I’ve got a lot more laid out in my journal, so it’s only a matter of giving the piece more time.  The most I can hope for, I think, is to make it ready for whatever workshop may come next, whenever that may be.  But it never hurts to have pieces laying around that you may or may not take further.  Like I said last time, practicing is the most important thing.  Plus, my pants are on fire with a few other pieces I’ve started since the workshop began, and I’ve been putting a good deal of effort into at least one of those.  I have fiction ideas popping out of my head left and right.  I’ve never before experienced that with fiction, which I think is a great sign that I’m feeling my own ability within the genre.

One thing our workshop leader is having us do is to keep track of “glimmers,” or seed ideas for potential stories.  This involves making record of odd bits of overheard conversation, thoughts or actions we witness throughout a day that stick with us, or striking images.  The area is wide open, actually, so whatever you write down is whatever you write down (profound, huh?  it is what it is…).  This is actually a good idea for all types of writing, which reminds me to throw open my mind and keep my seed ideas on deck for whatever.  My poetry would probably benefit from this every bit as much as my fiction writing has the last two weeks.

But nothing new ever comes easy to me as a writer.  I’m one of those “Act of Congress” writers; I don’t want to change my habits until things are completely hashed out in my head, so I wasn’t surprised at all I put myself through to adjust my writing habits to include the glimmers.  It was mostly a matter of being able to do it quickly and easily (and thus disrupting my normal processes as little as possible).  I always have a journal on me to write down and develop ideas (I usually have several, actually), but my mind doesn’t account for any way to whip out my journal and write down a short (2-3 sentence) glimmer before class, in line at the grocery store, or when I’m sitting in traffic.  I wouldn’t do that in my regular journal because I would consider it a waste of paper, but I desperately wanted to try this suggestion.  I ended up going to Office Max two weekends ago to find the tiniest journal I could; something that would fit into a jacket pocket or pants pocket.  I have small journals, but they aren’t that small.  I wanted something I could take whereever and, whenever needed, quickly whip it out.

After twenty minutes of hem-hawing around in the notebook aisle, I walked to the register and plunked down my 87¢.

No wisecracks about "size is everything," okay?

I wanted to spend the least amount of money possible (check), it had to be something small (check), but also something that I could stuff a small pencil into and that wouldn’t fly open (no checks).  I knew I would never find those exact things in any commercially available journal at Office Max, but that is why necessity is indeed the mother of invention.  I went home, snipped a rubber band, and stapled the ends of it to the back cover of the dinky journal.  Now I have dinky, dirt-cheap journal that I can stuff a small pencil into it and it won’t fly open.  I love it when a plan comes together.

By the way…  who the hell has a bunch of tiny pencils lying around that can be stuffed into jerry-rigged journals?  I do.  And you would too if you were a meticulous baseball scorecard keeper, and as such you have several seasons worth of scorecard pencils scattered around your desk that you refuse to throw out because who knows when you might need them some day?

It’s a funny thing, writing–no?

Written by seeker70

February 28, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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